Syllabus: Good Grief: Humor and Tragedy in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature

Charlie_Brown_cryingThe German critic Bertholt Brecht wrote that “One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.” In this class, we will test this thesis by exploring the use of humor to tell stories of personal or social trauma in modern U.S. literature. We will also see how some critics have approached the mystery of what makes us laugh, and why laughter and tears seem to run so close together. We’ll consider multiple genres and modes of literary humor, like satire and parody, and we will consider what, if anything, is distinctive about “American” humor.

Required Readings

Besides the readings on Blackboard, these will be available for sale at Barnes and Noble on campus. Buy them there, or wherever you prefer to buy books.

Paul Beatty, ed. Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor

Fran Ross, Oreo

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Course Schedule  

All readings should be completed before class on the day noted. Readings marked with an * can be found in Hokum. Readings in italics should be completed by graduate students in the class, and are optional for everyone else.

Jan. 9

Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt: From an Interview,” New York Review of Books, Oct. 26, 1978

E.B. White, from the Preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor

Carter Revard, “The Secret Verbs”

Patricia Lockwood, “Is Your Country a He Or a She in Your Mouth?”

Peanuts, October 19, 1975

Jan. 11

Sigmund Freud, “Humor”

* Sterling Brown, “Slim at Atlanta”

* W.E.B. Du Bois, “On Being Crazy”

To watch in class: Drunk History, “Harriet Tubman”

Jan. 16

Simon Critchley, On Humor, chapter 1

* H. Rap Brown on the dozens, pp. 56-59

Yiddish Radio Project, “A Selection of Curses”

To view in class: Joan Rivers—a selection of her red-carpet insults

Jan. 18:

* Paul Beatty, “Introduction,” Hokum

Writing workshop

NB: Mon, Jan 22 is the last day to withdraw from classes with tuition cancellation.

 Jan. 23:

Henri Bergson, “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” chapter 1, sections I, II, and V

Watch in class: excerpts from Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

Your assignment: bring in your favorite GIF for analysis

Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, “Comedy Has Issues,” Critical Inquiry 43:2

Jan. 25:

Eric Lott, Love and Theft, pp. 3-5, 15-21

The Daily Show, “Reminder: Race is Not a Costume”

Chappelle’s Show: “The Racial Draft”

WE1 due: Why should Henri Bergson laugh at your GIF?

Jan. 30

* Bert Williams jokes

* Zora Neale Hurston, “Possum or Pig?”

* Elizabeth Alexander, “Talk Radio, DC”

Quiz on literary terms and concepts

Feb. 1

Joel Chandler Harris, Legends of the Old Plantation (excerpts)

Charles Chesnutt, “The Goophered Grapevine,” “Po’ Sandy”

Feb. 6

Chesnutt, “Dave’s Neckliss”

Glenda Carpio, “Black Humor in the Conjure Stories”

Feb. 8

Chesnutt, “The Passing of Grandison”

Feb. 10: WE2 (Why must Charlie Brown never kick the football?) due on Blackboard

Feb. 13

Dorothy Parker, “Interview,” “Love Song,” “Resumé,” “Little Words”

Watch: Saturday Night Live, “Debbie Downer: Thanksgiving Dinner”

Feb. 15

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Feb. 20

Heller, Catch-22

Feb. 22

Heller, Catch-22

Feb. 27

Flannery O’Connor, “Everything that Rises Must Converge”

WE3: Keyword analysis due in class

Mar. 1

Fran Ross, Oreo 

Mar. 6

Fran Ross, Oreo

Mar. 8

* Malcolm X, “Message to the Grass Roots”

“The Ballot or the Bullet,” King Solomon Baptist Church, Detroit, MI, April 12, 1964 (please listen to the recording here).

Workshop on outlines: please bring a reverse outline of WE3

March 13-15: Spring break

Mar. 20

Mandatory screening: When Jews Were Funny (dir. Allen Zweig)

Mar. 22: No class meeting: final paper rough drafts due

April 3

Zweig discussion; begin The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

April 5

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

April 10

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

April 12

Lauren Michelle Jackson, “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs” Teen Vogue

Brandy Monk-Payton, “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness,” Feminist Media Histories

April 17

Sianne Ngai, “The Zany Science,” from Our Aesthetic Categories

“Parks and Recreation,” from season 2, episode 10: “Leslie Gets Grilled by Local Sheriff”

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, “Ernestine the Telephone Operator Calls General Motors”

Excerpts from I Love Lucy, “Job Switching”

April 19

Luis Valdez, Los Vendidos

final project workshop


Close-reading exercise #1: GIF analysis

Length: at least 1 double-spaced page

In “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” Henri Bergson repeats a central image ofhis theory of what makes us laugh: “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” We laugh, he says, “when a person gives us the impression of being a thing.” Write a one-page analysis of a funny GIF that relates Bergson’s criteria to explain what about it makes you laugh. You may, if it helps–and if you know–consider the source material for your GIF. You may also consider it in context, i.e., as a reaction to a particular social-media conversation.

Writing exercise #2: Charlie Brown’s football

Length: At least two double-spaced pages 

This exercise continues to practice the skill we developed in WE1: using critical tools to analyze cultural texts. In this case, I want you to make an argument not just about why Charlie Brown’s endless struggle against Lucy and her football is funny, but what the significance of the humor is. Is this cartoon about gender politics and sexism, and if so, how do you read Lucy’s character and her motives? Is it a nihilistic warning against ambition and the inevitability of our disappointment, or a sympathetic portrayal of an indomitable underdog? Consider one of the theorists of humor we’ve discussed already (Arendt/Brecht, Freud, Critchley, Carpio, or Bergson) and make a concise, detailed argument about what Charlie Brown’s struggle is, why it is important, and why it is important to address it in the form of a joke. For this assignment, closely analyze the plot and language of at least two Peanuts cartoons—you are encouraged to read as many as you can find, of course.

Close-reading exercise #3: keyword analysis

Length: at least 2-3 double-spaced pages 

This paper develops close reading skills by focusing your attention on a very specific piece of textual evidence. Here I want you to narrow your focus to a single word. Identify a keyword from any of the primary texts we have read thus, and use it to make an argument about its significance in the text. You might prefer to focus on a poem, which because of poetry’s economy of language and its emphasis on wordplay often rewards a close reading of a particular word or specific line, but you can also examine one of the prose works we’ve read thus far.

What is a keyword? Think about the word “key” in both of its senses: as something of great importance and as a tool that opens up a room to closer examination. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “keyword” in these ways, as “a word serving as a key to a cipher or the like” and as “a word or thing that is of great importance or significance.” The literary scholar Raymond Williams described keywords as “binding words,” terms that draw together related concepts and themes.

The word you choose may be important because it establishes a central metaphor or symbol. It could be important because other terms refer back to it. It may draw your attention because it is a particularly ambiguous term, whose meaning demands interpretation; conversely it might stick out because it only appears inconsequential or straightforward on first glance. It might be used consistently, or its meaning might change in an important way which your paper might trace. You are free (indeed, encouraged) to quote from the text, even parts of the poem that do not include your keyword, as long as you explain why you are doing so.

The keyword you choose may be simple, or complex; it could be a multisyllabic word or it could be a little tiny pronoun. It could be repeated (in which case you would want to discuss the repetition) or it could only appear once. You should provide a dictionary definition only if a definition will help you get at something not immediately apparent in the text. If you do, cite the Oxford English Dictionary. Your paper should use your keyword to help you answer an interpretive question, which will be in first paragraph.